He's average. Alex looks at the dude, sizes him up, and the only thing the sly smile tells him is that the dude is average and doesn't know what he's stepped into.
Alex would figure the bloodstains on the concrete floor would be a clue, but a rundown basement in a seedy bar is not the type of place you pay attention to. So he strips out of his shirt, cracks his knuckles, and tries to decide what he's going to tell his counselor tomorrow afternoon.
I worked out my aggression. I'm trying something new.
But the fight doesn't stop the burn in his chest. It doesn't stop the glow that surrounds him when he drags his ass home, flops onto his bed and stares at the cobwebs strung across his ceiling.
I'm making progress, he thinks. I didn't kill anyone today.
"New blood," the dude next to him says, punctuating it with a nudge to Alex's ribs before he realizes who he's talking to.
Alex doesn't bother asking who. He looks up, and the new meat is easy to spot. It's another Mr. Average, but this guy's got a 'fro and a brighter smile.
Take a look around, Alex wants to shout across the room but stares instead, tracking the guy as he moves through the crowd.
Alex is healed up enough for another fight. The bruises over his ribs and chest are only a little splotchy, like his bones might be only a "little" cracked. It's building again, though, whatever the hell he is (mutant), and the meds don't offer the same chill that lodges in his lungs.
He throws the first punch and connects solid with the guy's chin. The dude laughs.
Fuck you, Alex thinks. Don't you know what I could do?
He can feel the energy welling up, building in him like a nuclear overload, and strikes punch after punch, but the dude laughs and keeps laughing and won't shut up and won't go down. Alex is panting, out of breath, muscles aching and strung taut, his heart hammering.
The guy shakes his head, and Alex wants to spit in his face. Don't pity me, he wants to say, but lets his fist speak for itself, letting it grind against the dude's ribs. All the guy says, though, is, "Sorry."
Then Mr. Average becomes Mr. Somebody because Alex Summers hits the deck in a clean knockout.
At least he's not the one who has to say sorry this time.
When he comes to, no one's around. It's how it should be when you figure out that the guy on the floor still has a pulse, no matter how reedy.
Alex is groggy, but he thinks he's okay and staggers to his feet. He stumbles upstairs, struggling to keep his grip on the railing. It feels like a trip that takes hours before he makes it to the top.
He feels hollow.
It shouldn't feel so good, but it's better than the strain of being wound so tight that it takes beating the crap out of another guy to make Alex feel better about being released to the general population. He'd done some time but not nearly enough, and he'd stayed too low key in the joint and earned an early release.
His face is throbbing, and the room upstairs feels like a maze he has to navigate just to find a door and eventually, some fresh air. It's still dark out, which Alex takes as another good sign as he looks left and right. His vision's blurred, but he can see well enough to watch the row of street lights that aren't busted flicker. The crap lighting isn't a surprise. It's not like the city's going to put money into a dive.
Alex turns his head and spits to add to the rundown atmosphere. It's not enough moisture to get rid of the cotton-dry feeling in his mouth or the taste of blood when he licks his lips. He can feel the blood crusted on his face, and he uses the back of his hand to half-heartedly make himself appear decent enough to catch a cab, maybe the bus if he can manage to walk that far.
"Name's Darwin," someone says to his left.
"Fuck off," Alex slurs, and weaves, trying to get a good grasp on his cell phone so he can call a taxi. He collides right into Mr. Somebody. No names is one of the rules, but Alex isn't worried. He's fuzzy enough that he's already forgetting the name even as something cold and slick is pushed into his hand.
"Figured I owed you one."
The beer seems like a bad idea, but Alex drinks it anyway. He's surprised that it isn't the pisswater that the bar keeps on tap. The first swig makes the cut on the inside of his cheek tingle. The one on his tongue, too. Alex stares at Mr. Somebody and keeps chugging.
He wakes up on the floor of his shitty apartment, which he recognizes by the vacuumed-once-in-a-blue-moon carpet. He figures whatever happened last night after picking himself up off the basement floor was a dream.
He fumbles for his cell, the numbers blurring in and out, while he tries to search through his contacts list. He tells his boss he's sick and ends the call before he hears anything else. He'll find out tomorrow if he still has a job.
It takes the next afternoon to notice DARWIN and a number scrawled on his chest in marker. Alex can't scrub it off and his body's too sore to take any more abuse.
"You didn't call," Mr. Somebody says, taking the stool just vacated by the asshole that the bouncer tossed out.
Alex starts wiping down the counter, trying like hell to pretend that he doesn't know who the hell this guy is or what he's talking about. "You gonna order?"
"What do you have?"
Alex jabs his thumb in the direction of the shelves behind him, all the liquor bottles lined up neatly enough that a drunk could identify them. "What you see."
"Tall, skinny white boy." Mr. Somebody grins, and it doesn't waver when Alex gives his dead stare. Mr. Somebody props his arms on the bar, but Alex isn't interested in the BS, so he starts moving down the bar to check on his other customers.
When he comes back to pour up a shot of Jack and a tequila sunrise, Mr. Somebody asks, "So you gonna go again?"
Alex dumps the tequila in the shot glass and rolls his shoulders back, taking a hard breath before he dumps the shot in the shaker and pulls down another shot glass. "Don't know what you're talking about, dude."
Mr. Somebody laughs, under his breath kinda soft. He waits for Alex to come back again and leans far enough forward to catch Alex's eye. "A shot of your best."
Alex is tempted to give the dude a well, but he slides the guy a shot of mid-shelf vodka instead.
Alex is too sore to enter the ring tonight. He keeps tonguing his back molar, constantly testing to make sure it's not actually loose. He's wedged between Mr. Beef-Arms and Mr. Too-Loud, who keeps jostling Alex every time he pumps his fist and bellows.
The crowd favorite tonight looks to be Mr. Somebody. Alex is sticking with the name, because he doesn't want to remember Darwin or the way those letters are still shadow-faint on his chest.
Two guys duking it out is a blase thing unless you're one of them. What Alex is keyed in on is how Mr. Somebody can take punch after punch and never lose his smile. No one seems to be questioning the dude's quick recovery. Or the lack of scars. Or the way something about his skin shifts. It happens so fast, is so subtle, that Alex can't catch what exactly is going on, even though he doesn't let himself blink.
What's missing is the lack of sound when force hits meat. Alex has been in enough fights to know, pretty well, how a fist sounds when it meets human skin. He knows how it gets sweaty and then how bloody it gets.
He stares at Mr. Somebody like staring is going to give him some answers, but all there is to see is a grin and then a brief chuckle. Darwin doesn't apologize when he finishes the fight with an uppercut and follows it with a left hook.
Alex wonders if he grinned that big when he was standing over Alex. Alex wonders if it was Darwin who did the pulse check and gave everyone the 'he's alive' nod.
But Darwin's not doing any of that. He's heading straight for Alex, breathing as easy as can be.
Alex turns and shoves his way through the crowd, hits the stairs at a jog, and makes it to a place where no one's going to care about scorched walls except for the gangs that tagged them.
"I didn't kill anyone today." It's how all of Alex's sessions with his counselor start.
Mr. Johnson frowns. "There's a school, Alex."
Xavier's Something Something. Alex had ignored the card he'd been offered when a recruiter had caught him on the street job hunting, and this is how Alex's sessions end.
He belongs in lock up, not a room full of kids.
Alex wants to stick with Mr. Somebody, but he looks up and realizes Darwin's wormed his way under Alex's skin. It prickles where Alex has finally scrubbed away the rest of the marker with the same viciousness that he's scrubbing away some nobody's face with his fist.
Punch after punch after punch, and Alex isn't so sure he can give his counselor the same old line anymore.
The smell of blood is heavy in his nose, and some of it's his own, moving sluggish to his mouth, where he licks it away. He's not looking at Darwin, but the dude is there, just outside of Alex's field of vision.
No one drags Alex off, but he stumbles, finds his way to a bench.
When the nod is given, the room is alive again like an artery, bodies moving like blood vessels emptying out to the stairs. All that's left in the stark wound is a guy on a floor and Darwin crouching next to him.
Darwin isn't smiling when he stands.
That's when Alex breathes.
Alex rolls onto his side when the gurgle in his throat becomes a choking, hacking cough. Flecks of blood dot his sheets, and he's about to use the back of his hand but stops. Darwin and a number are written on the white gauze, the marker bleed making the letters blur into each other.
Alex rips off the gauze, stumbles to the bathroom, and shoves it in the overflowing trash can. The water's cold when he takes his shower, but it takes a look in the mirror to confirm the stitches holding his eyebrow together. He fingers them with the same slow disbelief that he'd had in the shower, and his mouth sours around the name Darwin.
The fight's long over, but Darwin's still there, standing at the edge of the circle like another fight's about to gear up.
Alex shoves him into the wall, keeps Darwin pinned with his fists clenched in Darwin's shirt. Darwin doesn't even look phased when Alex demands, "Who the hell are you?"
"Someone who's interested."
It's not an answer. Or it is, but one with enough of a smartass edge to piss Alex off. "What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
"Interested, man." Then Darwin's hand slides around Alex's nape, and he leans forward.
The kiss is chaste, too soft for Alex's chapped, split lips, and it makes Alex's head ring like he's finished another fight.
Fuck you, Alex thinks. Don't you know what I could do?
Of course Darwin doesn't know, so Alex shoves him back and says, "I'm not." He beelines to the stairs, choking down the smell of blood and sweat and the way his heart seems to be stuck in his throat.
Alex can't figure out what Darwin's doing or what he's trying to prove.
Darwin stands in the middle of the ring, facing off against a guy who's twice his size and has got ham hocks for arms. Darwin spreads his arms, and no one's going to blame the guy for taking advantage of an opportunity when he almost knocks Darwin's head off.
An uncomfortable silence follows Darwin's laugh. "Good one," he says, and gets a punch to the gut in answer.
No one's going to stop this fight, no matter how one-sided it gets. If a guy steps into the ring and doesn't fight back, that's his choice.
Alex just can't figure out why Darwin's making that choice.
When the fight's finally called, Alex is the one who steps forward and presses two fingers to Darwin's neck, even though he doesn't know what he's looking for. He's never been the one to volunteer and has to feel along Darwin's neck 'til he finds it — the hard, steady beat of Darwin's pulse.
He gives everyone the nod, and while the room's clearing out, Darwin grabs his hand.
Alex stares down at him and doesn't know how Darwin's awake right now.
"See, man?" Darwin grins and pulls himself up, shaking himself out. "Nothin' can hurt me."
Alex is almost willing to believe that.
"Hey, hey, slow down," Darwin laughs against Alex's mouth, catching Alex's hand before he can shove it down Darwin's pants. "Let's go somewhere a little more comfortable."
The basement smells like musk and sweat and blood. It's not any different from Alex's place, so he shakes his head and takes a step back. "You don't even know my name."
"Come on, Alex." The words brush as soft as a kiss over Alex's cheek when Darwin closes the gap between them with one step. "Give me a little credit."
Then Alex is getting tugged along by a smile and a chuckle and has to tongue his back molar like a test of reality.
The hotel is cheap but clean, at least on the surface, but Darwin bypasses the front desk and heads straight for the elevator.
"Company dime," Darwin says, but that's not a good enough explanation for a one night stand with a guy from a basement fight.
Who the hell are you, buzzes in Alex's thoughts all the way up, slows his stride when they step into the hall. Darwin slides his hand into Alex's again and stops them right where they are for a kiss. Their fingers stay laced together, Alex's spasming in Darwin's grip, but the hot, damp slide of their mouths takes away the rest of the thinking. It's a sweeter break than the split of skin and the spatter of blood.
He follows Darwin the rest of the way like Darwin's going to tell him where he came from and how he knows Alex's name, but they don't really talk, except for the normal, breathy series of words that fill a room when two people fuck.
It's dark and Alex can't find his underwear.
"How about breakfast?"
The question nearly makes Alex jump. He could've sworn Darwin was asleep, so he answers with a grunt like he still is and finds his shirt tossed in the chair.
Alex can't pretend he's sleepwalking, so he says, "This isn't how one night stands work."
"How about a go-steady kind of thing?"
Alex can't stumble out of the room fast enough.
"So I think I came on a little strong," Darwin shouts when the new guy goes down and the crowd around them surges forward.
Alex jams his elbow into Darwin's side and hisses in a breath when he connects with something that's not a human body. He glances down, but there's nothing to see. Then there is. Dark armor plates pop up, one scale at a time, over Darwin's shirt.
"So I forgot to tell you," Darwin laughs, and steps closer, rubbing those rough, weird scales against Alex's arm. "I'm just like you."
Alex jerks away and stumbles into the ring. It's where he proves that they're not alike at all as he leaves another dude on the floor, face beaten to a pulp, the entire room staring at Alex like they don't know what the hell is going on.
Alex and Darwin are nothing alike.
"Stop," Alex says, and thinks absently that he should take his own advice as he shoves Darwin down onto the bed.
He's struggling to catch his breath and get a hold of himself before he takes out the building. Darwin's skimming his fingers up Alex's chest, smiling like the glow is something special.
"It's all right. I can handle it." Alex stares down at him for so long that Darwin grins, drops his hands to Alex's hips and squeezes. "Go ahead," he says. "Hit me. I can take it."
Alex rears back, fist in the air, and remembers Darwin in the ring. The blow glances off of Darwin's cheek.
"See?" he says, and then tugs Alex down for a kiss. "I can take it, Alex. You gotta trust me on this."
You don't know what I could do.
But Darwin isn't listening. He's staring at the black edges of the basketball post from where Alex sliced it in half.
"Huh," Darwin says, and glances at Alex over his shoulder. "You did this?"
Alex shrugs and looks at the street. "Done much worse," he murmurs, figuring Darwin won't be able to hear it.
"Worse, huh?" Then Darwin's standing in front of him, reaching out and taking hold of Alex's hand. "You want to talk about it?"
Alex jerks away. "You're not my counselor, dude."
"Nah, but." Darwin's hand slips so easy into Alex's again. "I'm your friend."
Alex is a gusher, always has been. One hit to the nose, and it never stops bleeding, so the ring looks worse for wear when he stumbles out of it, staggering into one of the foundation posts. He's about halfway to sliding to the floor when someone grabs him and hauls him back up again.
"Hey, hey." He looks up, and it's Darwin and he's not surprised anymore.
"How," Alex slurs, but Darwin's shoving his shirt against Alex's nose and telling him to keep his head down.
He doesn't get a second chance, not until he's sprawled on his bed. He can't remember how he got here or why Darwin's tugging on his legs and laughing at him when he spreads them.
"Not tonight, Alex. I'm just trying to get you cleaned up."
Alex grabs Darwin's arm before he disappears again, digging his fingers into soft, human skin while he waits for the shift to happen. "How do you do it?"
Darwin cups his cheek, peeling away the blood-soaked shirt to check Alex's nose. "There's a school," he says, and his thumb runs across Alex's mouth. "You interested?"
Alex grips Darwin's shoulder and lifts himself up for a kiss, pressed too rough and stark against Darwin's mouth. "Yes," he whispers.
When he wakes up, Darwin smiles but doesn't make any mention of it, and that's how Alex knows. He's going to do it, because it's gotta be better than the fights, than waking up with blood in his throat and the fear of what he's done. It's gotta be better than this.